Teaching in the Time of Trump

Dear Reader,

I have taken a sabbatical from the blog for a few months now – in all honesty, the pernicious political climate defeated any desire I had to put together my thoughts for a blog post. Every idea I started with turned angry, and I generally believe anger is an impotent emotion.

angry trump
Trump speaks to supporters – photo by Politico

I am hardly alone in feeling the negative vibe in the air – most people in our society (70 % according to recent polling) feel that the country as a whole is more negative since the last election.  As the saying goes, the speed of the group is equal to the speed of the leader. You could restate this as the tone of the group is set by the tone of the leader. The leader’s tone is dangerous, angry, toxic. Horrible.

It has not been easy to resist the tone.  It has especially been a challenge at work, in the classroom.  How does one teach in the time of Trump?  It’s not easy.  First and foremost, we have to tolerate things we disagree with and realize that opinions about Trump run a full spectrum.  Despite how I feel about Trump, I have to model tolerant disagreement. Second, we have to acknowledge that everything we talk about in the classroom connects to the world around us, and the students certainly feel impacted by what’s going on out there.  Nothing feels quite normal to students these days.  They have anxieties and insecurities that get expressed in class discussion and in their writing. My students worry about their Muslim neighbors, their immigrant classmates, their LGBTQ friends, themselves. As much as we’d like to, we can’t shut the door and pretend that the world doesn’t exist; we have to talk about it. The only good way I can think to let the world in is by not focusing on Trump so much as what we read can teach us about ourselves. After all, even though a person like Trump seems new and unique in time, in truth he is not new but rather a regression.  We can learn lessons from stories, plays, novels, and poems that show us who we do – and don’t – want to be. These past few months, I have found some solace in knowing that the things we study teach us about why truth matters, why bullies can’t win, what happens when we demonize others, and what happens when we fight for the best version of ourselves.

One of the classes I teach is called Ethics in Literature, and one of the things we confront in this course is the idea of what is true. There is a dangerous way of thinking out there in the world that says, “If it feels true to me or if it confirms what I believe, then it must be true.”  In current political discourse, this is what is know as “Alternative Facts.”  In plain truth, alternative facts are lies.  One of the lessons we learn in ethics is that thinking so doesn’t make it so. “Many people are saying” is not a rational argument, and when we talk about big questions of right and wrong, objectivity is essential.  Here is an example: Person A thinks chocolate ice cream is the best.  That thinking expresses an opinion about ice cream.  Is chocolate ice cream the best?  Not according Person B who loves vanilla ice cream.  Can they both be right? Ice cream is a low-stakes argument.  But what if we apply that same process to a moral question? Moral questions can’t be decided based on a mere difference of opinion or preference.  It may be Person A’s opinion that pursuing stem-cell research is wrong because it makes him uncomfortable, but that is not enough to declare it morally wrong. Moral questions require justified thinking, not just opinion or preference. And saying something like “stem-cell research is wrong because I think it’s messing with the natural order” is not a rational, justified argument.  It may be how Person A feels, but that does not make it true.  There really is a difference between facts and feelings, and one of the most important things we can teach students is to believe in the independent objectivity of facts.

As we read Macbeth, we see what happens when we give way to our darkest impulses, when we seek to win at all costs even at the expense of other people. The witches set the tone for this early on by declaring that “fair is foul and foul is fair.”  Macbeth is a bully who decides to trash and destroy everything in his path. He wants power, but he doesn’t know what he wants to do with it.  The gluttonous desire for power is all consuming, as he ultimately realizes that he is “in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should [he] wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” – in other words, he is in over his head. The paranoid pursuit of power leads him to threaten and murder everyone he perceives as a threat in order to try and maintain his grasp on the throne. Ultimately, the bully defeats himself as everyone turns against Macbeth, refusing to accept his fatalistic vision. Shakespeare’s dark play shows us that ambition alone does not make a great leader, and while it may inspire fear, it will never inspire love, admiration, greatness, or loyalty.

macbeth
image from BBC

When we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we learn that how we treat others matters. When Victor’s creature wanders out into the world, he is not a monster.  The creature seeks love, acceptance, and understanding.  He looks for a place to belong.  But it is his difference in appearance and manner that ultimately creates fear in others.  Society can’t handle his difference, and they take out those fears on the creature.  The creature learns that he is “solitary and abhorred” – alone and hated.  This leads him to feelings of “hate and revenge” – the creature learns to treat others the way he has been treated.  At one point, the creature tells Victor, “I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” The lesson is simple: when faced with someone different from our norm, someone outside of our comfort zone, we can treat them with respect and create better humans, or we can create monsters. Sometimes, for all the talk of America being “a great melting pot,” we sure do seem to resist people who are different from our norm.  Too often we regard each other with suspicion and derision – and the monsters we really create are ourselves.

But when we read The Hunger Games, we learn that we should not pit ourselves against each other. When we do that, we play the evil leader’s game. President Snow wants people from the various districts to distrust each other, not to talk to each other, and not to help each other. He wants them to see their survival as dependent on the demise of others. Peeta and Katniss refuse to conform to the image of “good tributes” in that while they understand they may have to sacrifice their lives, they refuse to sacrifice their character.  Their resistance is shown in small and big ways.  For example, on the eve of the games, Peeta says, “I want to die as myself” in the arena.  He does not want to fundamentally alter who he is for the sake of the game.  Snow is hoping that the tributes will all behave viciously toward one another once the games are underway, confirming the worst narrative Snow has tried to construct about the people from the districts.  It is a small act of rebellion on Peeta’s part to fight for his character in the face of a truly horrible fate.  In a much larger act of resistance, Katniss shows compassion to her ally, Rue.  When Rue is mortally wounded, rather than run away to save herself, Katniss stays with Rue so she doesn’t have to die alone.  Her rebellion is shown in the way she prepares a funeral scene for the fallen tribute and honors Rue’s district in an unprecedented show of solidarity.  What Collins’ book tries to show is that cooperation is how we win, and we must fight to stay true to ourselves even when circumstances try to force us to act in ways that hurt others. We must always search for and nurture the better parts of our nature – and that is the only way we really win, the only way to make ourselves great.

When we studied John Rawls’ theories on social justice, my students did an exercise where they created an ideal society behind their own veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance assumes that you don’t know who you will be or what place you will have in society, so in creating society, the goal is to try and set it up as fairly as possible for everyone. I challenged them to think affirmatively – create the society they want by deciding on what was good. The point of the exercise was to discover what things we truly value. Their list was encouraging: they want freedom, they want justice, they want equality, they want peace, they want respect, they want education, they want opportunity. What is made plain by the list they created is what they don’t want: prejudice, injustice, inequality, fear, disrespect, lack of education, and lack of opportunity.

The exercise could be easily dismissed by saying it’s too idealistic, but during this week where we have celebrated the anniversary of our nation, it’s fair to point out that the Declaration of Independence was pretty idealistic too. America was a dream. It took some work to get it going, and we are still wildly imperfect. Does that mean we should cease to try?  Perhaps the most essential benefit of studying the humanities is that art, literature, and philosophy help us understand how much bigger the world is.  Too often, we are locked within a selfish bubble, only concerned with what is immediate to us. This isolationist thinking is dangerous. As much as anything else, my goal as a teacher is to say simply this to my students: try. Try to imagine the world you want to live in. Try to figure out how you can go about creating it.  Try compassion.  Try to live with honesty and dignity. Try to treat others the right way, to earn respect by giving it. Try to be the person you think you should be, even when it’s hard. Try in small ways and in great ways. Change happens in depressingly slow ways sometimes, but then sometimes it makes massive leaps. But none of it happens if we don’t try and just pretend that everything is normal, everything is okay.

This is how I have learned to teach in the time of Trump.

© Ryna May 2017

Advertisements

Commencement

Dear Reader,

I am a teacher, and for me and teachers everywhere, this time of year is a time of many emotions.  I am always excited that the semester is ending and that the glorious expanse of summer is just ahead.  At the same time, it is always just a little bittersweet because, since I think of my life in academic terms, it marks the passing of another year.

Commencement is the term we use for graduation ceremonies.  It’s funny because the denotation of the word is “the beginning or start” of something, but we assign the term to the pomp and circumstance that concludes an educational experience.  But I like that the word is forward-looking: it implies that we are ready to begin the next new, exciting chapters of our lives.

I have commenced 4 times in my life: in 1991 from high school, in 1999 from Howard Community College, in 2001 from the University of Baltimore, and in 2003 from the University of Maryland.  I have one more commencement in my future. God willing, that will be 2016 from Morgan State University with my doctorate, and then I will be able to retire from being a student.

My road to and through college was not a straight one.  I went to a private, religious high school that graduated boys who were encouraged to be preachers and girls who were encouraged to be housewives and Sunday school teachers.  My high school coaxed students to consider colleges that prepared young people to be in church-oriented professions: places like Bob Jones University or Pensacola Christian College.  If you can believe it, Dear Reader, Liberty University was considered too liberal – we were not supposed to consider that as an option.  So of course, that is where we all wanted to go!  Show us that forbidden fruit!

I have wonderful memories of high school.  I don’t want to brag or anything, but I will: I won an award for “Christian Character,” I lettered in 3 sports (volleyball, basketball, and softball), was a team captain in 3 sports, was a league all-star and MVP in 3 sports, was named a US Army Scholar Athlete my senior year, worked on the yearbook, was the president of my senior class, and earned the title of valedictorian.  I gave a speech at my graduation.  I was also voted homecoming queen.  (Those of you who know me well will appreciate how little I cared about that last thing, but it happened.)  High school was a blur of fun things, and even though I was considering college, as a first-generation college student, it was not my main focus or goal but an option.  I grew up in a blue-collar family, so I felt no pressure to go off to college.

When I graduated from high school, I had a partial scholarship to attend Liberty University (of course I applied there!).  I was also considering the “family business”: I grew up in a Navy family and was weighing whether to join the Army or the Navy.  I also knew my step-father was about to be reassigned from Andrews Air Force Base to a new duty station and was considering just moving out and starting my own life, putting down roots here in Maryland – as a Navy brat who had moved all over the place her whole life, this was pretty appealing.  Ultimately, I decided to move out on my own and take a few classes at community college.  Then, as Frost said, way led on to way, and after a few semesters I ended up putting off college while I worked in the “real world.”

I loved being on my own, but not long after I moved out into my own apartment, I got married, and after that as a partner in a marriage determined to pull her own weight, I worked as a puppet, a pirate, a poet, a pauper, a pawn and a king. Well, almost: I worked at Carvel making ice cream cakes, at a pharmacy as a technician, as a softball and basketball coach, as a bartender, as a vice principal at a private school, and as a Special Police Officer for the Federal Protective Service.  It is in this job that life took a dramatic turn.

Many of you will recall the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City that occurred in April 1995.  American “Patriot” Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder truck full of explosives in front of this federal office building that he then detonated, killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700 others.  I mention this event because at the time, I was working for the FPS in Crystal City, Virginia.  My duty station was a federal building.  My beat took me between the Crystal City complex, the Navy Annex, and the Pentagon. I was on that same beat two years later: April 19, 1997.  We were all on high alert that day because it was the anniversary of the bombing, and that is when people get a little squirrelly.  We got a call that a “suspicious object” was left unattended in the stairwell at one of the Crystal City buildings.  This was not a drill.

There are a lot of things about that day that I don’t remember, but a few things will never fade.  The first thing I remembered was my training: we had to evacuate the building to make sure all of the workers were safe, but then it was my job to run into the building.  It was my job to run back into the building.  I was the valedictorian of my class, and my job was to run into the building to look for the potential bomb.  I also remembered a conversation I had with my mom just a few days before that.  She told me that she was going to start taking college classes.  Because my mom chose to have a family at a young age, she had to earn her GED and now, years later, she was going to start pursuing her college education.  It struck me that I had no excuse.  I had been given every advantage my parents could give me, and I never cashed those things in.  I needed to have a path or plan for the future that led me out of the fire, not into it.  (I should say now that I have tremendous respect for first responders – that job is not for punks – that is hard, dangerous, and honorable work.  I am not worthy.)

Gatsby
The Great Gatsby: the book that unlocked my curiosity

The “suspicious object” was found by someone else and was not a threat, but a prank.  But it was a metaphorical bomb to me because it blew UP my life.  I had to admit that this was not how I imagined things for myself.  The next day as I was coming home from work, I took a detour.  In a trance, I drove to the bookstore where I wandered into the section called “Classics.”  At my conservative high school, we weren’t given the opportunity to read a lot of literature.  We read some Romantic poets (Wordsworth), Animal Farm (to remind us how great America is), and Romeo and Juliet (as a cautionary tale: don’t think you can defy your parents).  I was starved for literature.  I wanted to see the world through new eyes.  I stood in front of that shelf of mysterious books, and my eyes fell on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I had heard of that book, so I bought it and read it.  I didn’t get it.  But I knew that there was something there, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the “green light” and other things in the book.  It made me curious to read more.  I bought another book after that: To Kill a Mockingbird.  And then I read Catcher in the Rye.  And then, before I knew it, it was August, and I was enrolling in classes at Howard Community College.

The two years I spent at Howard Community College changed my life definitively.  I came there lost and not knowing quite what I sought.  I picked a major (Psychology) out of thin air and, because of an amazing teacher, found my true calling.  I ended up in her Introduction to Literature class by divine accident (I thought I needed a requirement that I did not need), but that literature class made me want to take another literature class.  And another….  After I wrote a paper for one of those classes, the teacher, who was the same amazing teacher from my other classes, wrote a question on my essay: “Why aren’t you an English major?????”  I could not answer that.  This teacher got me to consider the thing that no one else had: what is it that I love?  I switched my major. I went on to finish my undergraduate degree and earn my master’s degree in English Literature.  I said yes to some unbelievably lucky opportunities that allowed me to start teaching, and ultimately, I was lucky enough to find a way to make what I love what I do for a living. In Taoist philosophy, it is believed that the “way” becomes clear for an individual when the individual surrenders to what is. The way is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course.  The way is commencement.  It is not lost on me that I am able to pay that forward.  A teacher changed my life by helping me give in to what I loved.  Maybe I will inspire some student somewhere to change hers.  And so on, and so on…  I try to ask my students every semester: What is it that you love? What is it that you want?  I ask them to understand that life is long and that work is part of our identity: it should be more than just earning a salary.  Maybe, for some student, that will inspire them to consider their passion and not just a paycheck.

At Commencement, 1999, with the teacher who changed my life
At Commencement, 1999, with the teacher who changed my life

Commencement: the day in 1999 when I graduated from HCC.  I felt a renewed idea of my purpose for my life.  I felt, for the first time in a long time, like I was going to be able to shape my destiny instead of just stumble onto it.  Commencement: I am drawn, every summer, back to The Great Gatsby.  I have read that book at the beginning of every summer since 1997.  I understand why Gatsby wanted to reinvent himself.  I understand his desire to be the author of his own story.  I didn’t understand it when I first read it, but it profoundly speaks to me now, and now each time I read it, it resonates more and more. Gatsby helped me get started on a new path, and now, it is the way I commence, in gratitude, welcoming each new year.

Do you have a book that saved your life?

Coming next month on Friday Nite Writes: This I Believe 

© 2015 Ryna May